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The Plight Of Sovereignty In Uzbekistan

What to do about President Karimov? We do not know how many people died in Andijon on 13 May, or even where their bodies lie. The Uzbek government maintains that 173 people were killed in a clash between police and armed religious extremists. Independent eyewitness accounts indicate that hundreds perished when troops turned machine guns on unarmed demonstrators. Western observers and governments have reacted with a combination of outrage at the reported atrocity and concern at the prospect of instability in Central Asia's most populous nation. But a survey of responses reveals an alarming paucity of concrete proposals beyond pressure for an independent investigation and, should that fail, disengagement from the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The root of the trouble lies not in observers' analyses, which are more often than not insightful and considered, but rather in a world order that has no ready solution to the contradiction between the desire for universal standards of human and political rights and a commitment to the principle of inviolable national sovereignty.

The most common response to events in Andijon was a call to exert pressure on Uzbek President Islam Karimov to allow an independent investigation and, more broadly, institute political and economic reforms. In a typical statement, Britain's "The Times" wrote on 16 May that "pressure must now be put on Mr. Karimov to change course before his country and the entire unstable but strategic region are engulfed." Writing in Switzerland's "Le Temps" on 24 May, Alain Deletroiz urged a bilateral great-power push to hasten Karimov's departure: "If it is true that troops opened fire on an unarmed crowd, then Karimov should resign. Not to push him toward the exit now, to continue to consider him a viable statesman, would be an error for which the world will pay sooner or later in the form of an explosion in Uzbekistan. Will Moscow and Washington complete this analysis and take the necessary measures before it is too late?" Ariel Cohen suggested an even broader coalition in an 18 May op-ed in "The Washington Times" to avoid an outbreak of religious extremism in Uzbekistan: "Uzbekistan's neighbors and the United States, Russia, China, European Union, the OSCE, and the UN should prod Mr. Karimov to find a way out of the current crisis."

To Prod, But How Much?

But what exactly would pressure, prods, and pushes entail? When observers strayed into specifics -- and many did not, as the examples above suggest -- they tended to focus on reducing engagement with an unjustifiably odious regime, often couching their recommendations in the context of U.S.-Uzbek relations. "The New York Times" put it succinctly in a 19 May editorial: "[The Bush administration] should start looking into ways to cut off Mr. Karimov immediately." Stephen Schwartz and William Kristol, writing in "The Weekly Standard" on 30 May, fleshed out the argument, calling on U.S. President George Bush "to lead the international pressure" for "trustworthy investigators to travel to Andijon and render a verdict on the events there. That verdict will likely be harsh for Karimov, and it should have consequences for U.S. aid to and support for the regime." Schwartz and Kristol note in closing that "the principle of linkage between a regime's behavior and relations with the United States must be reestablished. And if not in Uzbekistan, where we have so much leverage, how seriously will others take our promises and our warnings?"
"Uzbekistan stands at a crossroads, where all routes seem to be dead ends."

In a more global statement of a substantially similar argument, Jonathan Freedland, writing in "The Guardian" on 18 May, used recent events in Uzbekistan to urge a different approach to repressive regimes in general. He reasoned that "if the West made the vast financial and military aid it already gives to these regimes conditional on perhaps a three-year program of gradual liberalization -- lifting emergency laws, allowing proper funding of political parties -- then soon some space would open up." He concluded, "That surely would be more logically consistent than the current, contradictory reliance on tyrants to advance the cause of freedom. And it might have a chance of working in practice -- even in a place as benighted as Uzbekistan."


But is the financial and military aid to Uzbekistan really so vast? Is there really so much leverage? In a meticulously researched 25 May report titled "The Andijon Uprising," International Crisis Group indicated that perceptions may outstrip reality when it comes to U.S. assistance to Uzbekistan:

"U.S. assistance to Uzbekistan is relatively small and has declined in the past several years. Assistance was $219.8 million in 2002, but $86.1 million in 2003 and is down to some $38 million in 2005, of which $11 million is earmarked for security assistance, at least some of which may be held back, as it was the previous year, because of unhappiness over the human rights record. A significant portion of the security assistance is for the cleanup of Soviet-era biological warfare and nuclear facilities and border-control training. Nevertheless, there is a widespread perception among Uzbeks that the U.S. strongly backs an increasingly unpopular regime. This perception is fed by the prominence the regime gives to high-level visits and other contacts and belief that payments connected to the U.S. use of the military base at Khanabad also add significantly to the transfer of money."

A recent visit to Uzbekistan by three U.S. senators suggested, however, that the prominence of such high-level contacts is rapidly waning. Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Sununu took a hard line in Tashkent on 29 May. Senator McCain said, "We are here today because we are concerned about recent events that have taken place, which entailed the killing of innocent people," RFE/RL reported. At a news conference the next day in Bishkek, McCain stressed: "We are not pleased at events in Uzbekistan. We repeat our demand for a full and complete investigation by the OSCE of the massacre [in Andijon] that occurred just a few days ago," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. McCain and Graham stressed that it will be "very difficult" for the United States to maintain its current level of relations with Uzbekistan in the absence of an impartial investigation, Reuters reported. But official Tashkent was not in a mood to listen. As Senator McCain put it, "No [Uzbek] government officials agreed to meet with us."

The senators' visit, which official Uzbek media pointedly ignored, underscored a prescient commentary offered by Eurasia Insight on 18 May. Noting that "Uzbekistan stands at a crossroads, where all routes seem to be dead ends," Eurasia had glumly warned, "Even if the West gets serious after Andijon, the threat of punitive measures may be unable at this stage to produce the desired result."

Not all observers limited themselves to calls for prodding and pressure, though. In a 20 May article in "Slate," Fred Kaplan enlivened by now familiar counsel to "shrug and go" with the following: "One can imagine U.S. intelligence agents in Uzbekistan (and it's naive to think there aren't any) approaching [Interior Minister Zokir Almatov or secret police chief Rustam Inoyatov] and offering them a deal: We will help you topple Karimov, and help you stay in power, if you promise to institute real reforms." Understandably terming such an approach "risky" and "fanciful," Kaplan allowed that "Bush and his team may have no appetite or opportunity for it. In that case, they should explain their appetite for staying in Uzbekistan and associating with Karimov -- or leave as soon as possible."

But if the international community shrugs and goes because it has decided that the odor emanating from Uzbekistan's government is too strong to be tolerated, where does that leave the Uzbek people? If foreign governments respond to the reported horrors of Andijon by reducing their level of engagement, how much leverage will they have? EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner addressed the issue on 23 May, explaining that the EU does not plan to suspend annual aid of 10 million euros ($12.6 million) to Uzbekistan, AP reported. Ferrero-Waldner said, "What would we achieve by suspending the aid? ...For the time being, there is no other way than to try to engage President Karimov in some sort of dialogue and call for an independent investigation."

Cut Off

For now, President Karimov isn't budging. If anything, the latest reports indicate a crackdown against any and all manifestations of dissent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 May 2005). A correspondent for Russia's "Versiya" recently managed to spend two days in Andijon, although Uzbek officials have encircled the city with roadblocks and denied journalists access. In a 30 May report, he wrote, "Arrests are taking place throughout the city. They're grabbing those who are suspected of attending the antigovernment demonstration [on 13 May], arresting their relatives and close friends."

At the same time, mounting evidence points to an ongoing cover-up. On 27 May, RFE/RL visited what appeared to be a mass grave in Andijon containing 37 gravesites. Isroiljon Kholdorov, the regional leader of the banned Erk opposition party, told RFE/RL that local gravediggers said bodies were brought in trucks to the site, located in a district of Andijon called Bogishamol, after the violence on 13 May. He said, "[The gravediggers] say there are 37 graves with two corpses in each. So, there must be [74] bodies altogether." RFE/RL later learned that the guide who led the way to the site, a man in his late 50s named Juraboy, was stabbed to death by two unknown assailants.

Against the calls for an independent inquiry that such reports have prompted, President Karimov has advanced a simple argument -- national sovereignty. He articulated this most clearly in comments to the press on 25 May, Uzbek Radio reported. Addressing calls for an independent investigation, he said, "Uzbekistan is a sovereign state.... I can even say in advance what their conclusions would be. The conclusions would be no different from those in Chechnya and other countries. We would be responsible for it for the rest of our lives, as if we were a guilty country and, as a poor thing, [be obligated to] beg them for forgiveness." He concluded, "Our view, my view, and our government's view is we think that the idea of setting up an international commission on investigating the Andijon events is groundless, and we will never agree to this."

In brandishing national sovereignty to ward off international appeals for an independent inquiry, President Karimov stands on firm ground. Outraged at reports of a massacre, outsiders press for change in a political system that has, they argue, violated principles that transcend national boundaries. While Karimov denies the charges, his real argument is that others' principles do not, in fact, transcend the borders of the nation-state he rules. The bulk of the independently collected evidence we now possess suggests that basic principles of life and liberty suffered grievous violations in Andijon. Yet a wealth of international experience testifies to the greater power of sovereignty. International pressure may yet bear fruit, but the real threat to President Karimov is more likely to come from the pressure that will build from within as he proceeds with his apparent intention to clamp down and close off Uzbek society.